Beginning in 1961, the United States began using small destroyers to maneuver off the coast of North Vietnam to gather as much electronic and signals intelligence on the North Vietnamese as possible.
On August 2nd 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was performing one of these DESOTO patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin when it came under attack from three North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox called for air support, and with the assistance of four F-8 Crusaders, was able to repel the attack with minimal damage done to the ship and at least one of the patrol boats likely sunk.
Two days later the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy were on the same DESOTO patrol, and due to the stress from the previous attack and freak weather conditions, the both reported that they came under attack from the North Korean Navy, although this was later disproven. After the hearing about both attacks President Johnson decided to escalate military action against North Vietnam, and delivered a speech to the American people shortly before midnight on August 4.
While the officers involved in the second incident tried to back down from their assertions about the second attack, this information never made it from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to President Johnson. Had Johnson known about the truth of the second "attack", he may have waited for more information before deploying additional military assets against North Vietnam - McNamara and other advisers had previously recommended bombing North Vietnam on at least four separate occasions.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, signed on August 5, 1964 gave the US President the power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war from Congress. This caused the number of American soldiers in Vietnam to rapidly increase during the end of 1964 and the beginning of 1965.
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